“Emile, are you going to start making a habit of giving away all our best pastries for free?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. My eyes followed the path of the girl who’d just left. Her skirt and hair had one thing in common: their shortness. Turning back to my friend, I could not help but laugh. Emile’s head was bent low, as if the worn metal cash register consumed all of his mental capacity; his ears were pink.
“Emiiile,” I sang his name loud, like I might when calling a cat. “It’s a good thing you don’t live with Grandma. She’d tan your hide for looking at a flapper like that. It’s not proper the way those girls act.” I did my best imitation of her strict tone.
“Don’t be crude,” he answered. “I was doing no such thing.” As he spoke, his face burned. I just couldn’t understand how someone could find a cash register that interesting. Bored, I kicked the rough, straight-grained, countertop with my bare legs. It cut in lightly; imprinting itself as a reminder of the wrong I was committing by being there.
My grandmother always hated it when I sat up on that counter. She’d say that it wasn’t how a proper Parisian lady should be seen. If she saw me perched up there with my legs swinging, she would be ever so cross. Her grey eyes would glare out at me from under her equally grey chapeau in a kind of calm composed fury. And her lips would press together in such a way that made you ever so guilty.
“Miss Claire,” she’d say, her words sour milk, “if you’re not careful, people will start thinking that you’re,” she’d shudder, “Italian.” This, to Grandma, was the utmost insult. She spent seven months living in Florence when she came of age some forty years back, and hadn’t had any form of good regard for the country since.
But Grandma wasn’t there that day, so I sat up on that dark counter with it’s glass case full to the brim with every pastry from eclairs and macarons to pain au chocolat and croissants. I sat there, and talked to Emile. Swinging my legs in my best Italian way.
Emile was much like an older brother to me. He wasn’t very bookish, which saddened my grandfather to no end, but he knew his way around a baguette. Some of my best childhood memories took place in his presence. Often when the bakery hadn’t quite opened, Emile would put on one of his Yvette Guilbert records that he loved so much. He’d dance his way around the shop with a grace that I could never imitate as hard as I tried. Eventually, I would simply give up, and I just sat there, watching him dance, and laughing till my sides hurt. It was all very Italian.
When the Bakery was open though, everything became quick. Grandpa was the Monet of baking, and everyone knew it. The entrance of that Bakery was this huge red door adorned with a merry brass bell. It sang out each time a person entered the shop. Every time I heard it, I would come from where ever I had been to the front and shout a hello, for I knew just about everyone in our part of town. We had a lot of customers back in those days, and that bell never sat still. Grandpa and Emile didn’t either for that matter.
In those days, Grandpa’s bakery was my safe haven. Every morning I would wake up early, and slip down stairs to fall into the kitchens, full of flour dust and the smell of rising bread. When it came time to open shop, I’d move up to the counter with Emile to help with the selling. I say that I “helped” but in all honesty I did far from that. I had just about every adult working there wrapped about my eight year old finger, and I must have been a constant distraction to them.
Sometimes, when I was being a particular hassle Grandpa would tell me to go to the front of the shop in an out-of-the-way place, and look for strangers. If someone new did enter the shop he told me to memorize their faces. He’d say: “Look at those faces Claire, look at them and tell me what lives they hold.” Later that evening, I would describe these people in full to my grandpa. I’d tell him all about the lives I’d imagined for them, and he would nod at what I was saying, always distracted and never really listening.
I knew Grandpa just wanted me out of the way, but I didn’t mind, really. My job made me feel important, and it gave me the excuse. You see, I suppose I always secretly hoped that one day Papa would come through those doors. Just like he used to.
After The Great War, when Papa finally came home, everything seemed like it was going to be perfect. I was so young when Papa left, and that was the first time I really got to know him. It turned out that we were just the same, the two of us. He was the only family member I knew that would listen to me. Like really listen to me, with his eyes never slipping from my face. Then one day he was gone. I understand more now, but at the time I was lost.
For the first few months, I asked Mama where Papa had gone all the time, but Mama just grew quieter and farther away from me the more I asked. When I finally gave up on my mother, I went to Grandma, demanding answers. She looked at me, sighed, and hugged me. That was the only time Grandma ever hugged me.
“The Great War made your father sick, love. He couldn’t take it anymore.”
I didn’t understand her at all, but I liked that hug.
Javier was crying. His face all squinted up and his lower lip trembling, then falling open in a whimper. I had been especially rowdy that day. Grandpa had finally cracked when I tried to imitate Emile’s dancing, and ended up running into a tray of cooling croissants. His normally quiet and subdued self was ignited in flames, and Grandpa roared at me with the ferocity of a dragon. Needless to say, I was banished to our apartment.
Mama wasn’t paying Javier any attention. He sat there on the floor with tears streaming down his face, and she just stared out the window, her face all romantic and far away. Grandma still wasn’t home from her shopping, thank goodness, so Javier was saved from her harsh quieting slaps.
It didn’t matter that Javier had banged his head on the table corner. All Grandma would care about is for him to stop crying. Grandma hated it when people cried. She didn’t like any form of emotion as a matter of fact.
Mama still wasn’t paying any attention to the wails coming from Javier, so I stood up, abandoning the paper dolls I’d cut out of old-fashioned magazines, and went over to my little brother. He hiccuped slightly as I pulled him to me.
“Mama, can I take Javier out?” I asked, knowing well that she wouldn’t care where I was. She looked up at me, startled out of her day dream. It’s funny how you can drown out a person crying, but once someone says your name, they have your attention.
“Oh, course sweet, why are you asking me?” I didn’t remind her that Grandma hated me taking Javier out alone, and simply muttered a “thanks.” Pulling Javier off the floor, I herded him before me as a shepherd would his sheep.
Once we were out, I started walking fast, without any plan of where I was going. Paris has this way of sweeping you along, and I just kept taking rights and lefts and lefts and rights. Throngs of people crowded the streets, and as I dragged Javier behind me, I tried to gather in all of their faces. They were all there: the stern, the happy, the careless and the diligent. They were all there, in that moment, and on this planet. Everyone, that is, but my mama.
It was then, a moment of clarity seemed to wash over me, and I grew both angry, and brave all at once. Clutching my shadow of a brother’s hand, I turned on my heel and began walking back the way I came. My feet seemed to remember each turn I had made, and as my hard leather boots clapped against the uneven cobblestone streets, I felt certain in the validity of what I was about to do.
Then I was there, in front of the bakery, and in front of my home. Through the window, I could see Emile laughing with a customer as he handed them a parcel, and I could make out my grandfather’s profile in the kitchen, elbow deep in bread dough. Emile looked up, smiled, and waved at me, as if beckoning me in. I smiled back, but turned instead to the door that led to the apartments above.
My fingers dragged against the wooden banister. It was smoothed to a perfection that only thousands of past hands could muster. I arrived at the first door, with its silver number 1 pinned to its front, and its tarnished brass doorknob. Pushing the door open, I paused for half a second. I could hear Grandma’s voice in my head, begging me to let things be, and pretend nothing was wrong. To stay composed. To keep apart. To fight emotion… But I ignored her, and marched through the doorway with my brother in tow.
Mama hadn’t moved from her spot by the window and she didn’t even look up when I entered.
“Mama, Papa isn’t here,” I said. I was standing in the middle of the room, all stiff and serious. The words seemed to tumble out of me.
“Papa isn’t here now. And he isn’t coming back, Mama. But I’m here. And Javier’s here, and Grandpa and Grandma. And we need you.” I paused, gathering my thoughts, and plunged back in.
“So stop sulking Mama. I miss Papa too, but missing him doesn’t change anything. You can’t become a dropped stitch. I have to know that you’ll take care of Javier when he gets hurt. I have to know that you’ll take care of me.” Again I pause.
“So… so get your head out of the clouds,” I finish. The last part I said softer, as if I was embarrassed about what I just did. Looking down I saw that I was still gripping Javier’s hand, and he was starting to squirm. Dropping it, I glanced back up at Mama. My face told a story of worry and hope.
“Thank you.” The words were quiet, almost whispered. I didn’t move. I didn’t speak. I just stood there.
“Thank you,” she said again. This time she turned to me. Tears were running down her cheeks.